University of Iowa Professor Kevin Kopelson wrote the following essay a few days before the Iowa Supreme Court marriage decision in April of 2009. He had no prior knowledge of the pending decision, and neither could have taken into account the pro-gay-family sentiments that would later define the victory.
By Kevin Kopelson
When asked last week, by the co-editor most aware of my autobiographical work hence also aware that, in real life over the past ten years, I’ve co-parented three bright, beautiful, now twenty-something-year-old “boys,” to write, for some possible post-feminist collection, a personal essay “on academic father-hood,” I told him, as usual, that I’d sleep on it.
The unconscious, at such times, is smarter than you. It’ll show, in dreams, what to write or maybe not write. This time, it showed: I’m the perfect fifties housewife, devoted to my not three but two kids: teenage son, teenage daughter. Unlike Adam, Seth, and Sam, though, they’re brats. They don’t appreciate anything I do, for them, nor feel sorry for me. Think: Donna Reed on The Donna Reed Show plus Divine, in Polyester, as “Francine Fishpaw.” Today, for example, when I try without success to make a rather hard cake, the two just mock me. Losing it, I punch no, not the boy, the girl — punch her hard, in fact, and right in the face: bam bam bam. I also, as it happens, punch our mattress — bam bam bam — waking both David and me. He’s the biological and to them more masculine father of Adam et al. — making me, I’ve joked, a combination of “Uncle Charley,” on My Three Sons, plus Auntie Mame.
This, I mused, can’t bode well. I can’t write on abuse, by me, or on beating students, especially girls, in relation to whom, on some level and as one or more genders — masculine and/or feminine — I may feel parental and also, oddly, misogynist. For of course I don’t beat them. Nor am I aware — not that I would be were the level unconscious — of having ever wanted to. I love most students, especially girls. My own folks, moreover, never abused me, whether physically or even just — even worse — verbally. Nor did my two oldest, pseudo-parental siblings — sixteen years older than I — twins Eric and Maureen. Teachers, though, were another story. One, in grade school, said, or at least implied, that I’ll never measure up to brother Bob, a concert pianist who, while thirteen years older, had also had her. Another said so as to brother Steve, just two years older. Nor, needless to say, did I ever abuse Adam, Seth, and Sam — not as their Uncle Charley / Auntie Mame nor even, sometimes, as Peter Pan / Mary Poppins, nor even, more frequently, as myself alone. Instead, I’d teach them to cook, to clean, to read, to write — to read literature, that is, and write essays. I’d also knit sweaters — rather hard ones, in cable-stitch. Nor would David abuse them. Nor would their biological mother, Julie, which is why, for the most part, they are so bright and beautiful.
I say by me, though — “I can’t write on abuse, by me” — because I have, in fact, as some readers here will know, so discussed those school marms (Mrs. Graa, Mrs. Keaton). I’ve also discussed ones that another David had. David Sedaris, I’ve written in Sedaris, had just awful teachers in both elementary and middle school. Marcel Proust, I’ve written there, did not. His, Sedaris’s, third grade teacher, a Miss Chestnut, tried to shame him — abusively and in public — out of obsessive-compulsive behavior like licking “her” light switch. The attempt, of course, was unsuccessful. His fifth-grade speech therapist, Miss Samson, tried — in private — to shame him out of a lisp. (I too lisped.) The attempt, once again, was unsuccessful. (I, thanks to a good such therapist, no longer lisp.) I’ve also, more to the point, discussed the man’s father — Lou Sedaris — an horrendous role model who’d use shame abusively: a weapon to wound, punish, maybe even destroy. These deployments, too, were public, plus sarcastic, aggressive, sometimes hateful. They might, for example, target some semi-competent but totally innocent waitress. Worse yet, they might target daughters Lisa, Gretchen, Amy, and Tiffany. Even more to the point, they’d target David — although not his younger by eleven years yet non-gay son Paul.
A fairly benign such instance occurred whenever he, David, did something stupid. “As a child,” writes Sedaris, “I’d always harbored a sneaking suspicion that I might be a genius. The theory was completely my own, corroborated by no one, but so what? Being misunderstood was all part of the package. My father occasionally referred to me as ‘Smart Guy,’ but eventually I realized that when saying it, he usually meant the opposite.”
“Hey, Smart Guy — coating your face with mayonnaise because you can’t find the insect repellent.”
“Hey, Smart Guy, thinking you can toast marshmallows in your bedroom.”
That kind of thing. A mainly malign instance occurred when, after dropping out of college for the second time and then traveling across the country, he found himself back home, in North Carolina, and also living at home. Loafing, really. After six months spent waking at noon, getting high, and listening to the same Joni Mitchell record over and over again, he was called into Lou’s den and, not surprisingly, told to get out. “I felt,” writes Sedaris, “as though he were firing me from the job of being his son.” Surprisingly, this eviction — this termination, in effect — had nothing to do with laziness. “I wouldn’t know it until months later, but my father had kicked me out of the house not because I was a bum because I was gay.”
Our little talk was supposed to be one of those defining moments that shape a person’s adult life, but he’d been so uncomfortable with the most important word that he’d left it out completely, saying only, “I think we both know why I’m doing this.” I guess I could have pinned him down, I just hadn’t seen the point. “Is it because I’m a failure? A drug addict? A sponge? Come on, Dad, just give me one good reason.”
Who’d say that?
As far as we readers know, Lou never apologized. (I, as more than just a reader, suspect he’d also beat David — and publicly.) But Sharon Sedaris, their now dead mother, did apologize, at the time, and more or less for Lou. “‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.'” Sharon, of course, was the boozy, chain-smoking, and virago-like master/mistress of neither abusive nor sarcastic but ironic, nurturing, constructive shame. She’d use words not to wound, punish, or destroy, but to cure. Unlike Lou, that is, she’d make kids realize both how foolish or vicious they were being and that they could do something about it. In particular, she’d make them realize how selfish or snobbish they were — how non-benevolent, non-egalitarian. (Sharon, unlike Lou, was a terrific role model, with benevolence and egalitarianism — if not the drinking and smoking — her two best virtues.) Such fostering of self-consciousness, though, required the suspension — for just the right amount of time — of what Sedaris, meaning some kind of love, calls “attention.” The kind of love, that is, that Sharon just couldn’t — or wouldn’t – verbalize:
“Of course you love Ya Ya,” [Lou] would say. “She’s your grandmother.” He stated it as a natural consequence, when to our mind, that was hardly the case. Someone might be your blood relative, but it didn’t mean you had to love her. Our magazine articles and afternoon talk shows were teaching us that people had to earn their love from one day to the next. My father’s family relied on a set of rules that no longer applied. It wasn’t enough to provide your children with a home and hand over all your loose change, a person had to be fun while doing it. For Ya Ya it was too late, but there was still time for my father, who over the next few years grew increasingly nervous. He observed my mother holding court in the bedroom and wondered how she did it. She might occasionally snap, but once the smoke cleared we were back at her feet, fighting for her attention.
Maternal love, that is. Other kinds, Sharon would verbalize — if, that is, flushed with wine and pounding the tabletop. “Love?” she’d ask in such condition. “‘I love a good steak cooked rare. I love my cat, and I love …’ My sisters and I leaned forward, waiting to hear our names. ‘Tums,’ our mother said. ‘I love Tums.'”
I, however, was both physically and verbally abused — up until when he hanged himself — by brother Steve. He’d bash me against walls, stab me with pens, deride my intellect. “Hey, Bright One,” he’d say, “thinking Wittgenstein played piano.” (Ludwig, of course, did not. Older brother Paul did, with just the one arm.) Or again: “Hey, Bright One, thinking Julia Child is French.” He’d also, all the while, mock our own mother, Ida, as, I’m afraid, would Dad. “Hey, Bright One,” they’d both say to her, “thinking toast should burn.” Or again: “Hey, Bright One, using ketchup as soup.” I, though, would not. I’d just watch Julia, as The French Chef, then read cookbooks, and then at thirteen, to Mom’s relief, take over the kitchen.
After Steve’s death, plus ten years later that of Dad, Bob took over, verbally, from both of them. Mom, he’d call a freak. Me, a pseudo-intellectual narcissist, which, in truth, to my own dark kettle, was really rather pot-like. Losing it, I then told or rather wrote him off — a letter never answered. Shame on him. Nurturing shame.
Older siblings, it seems, can act like parents: either male or female, good or bad, di- or I suppose monozygote. Teachers, then, can act like either parents or parent-like siblings: either male or female, good or bad. As such, moreover, we might also identify with students, female ones, perhaps, especially – if, that is, we’re either women of whatever sexuality or gay men. (In my dream, then, I’m not just Donna-Francine but that abused daughter as well. That son, I suspect, is both Steve and Bob – as, again, is the daughter. The cake, there, represents not my own cooking, of course, but Mom’s.) And if, in the classroom, we’ve also learned, if only consciously, to channel not the abusive parents, parent-like siblings, or parent-like teachers but rather the nurturing ones — an Eric or Maureen, not Bob or Steve — then students of ours should both survive and thrive. Better Sharon there, in other words, than Lou Sedaris. Better yet, be David Sedaris, who himself, in print, channels Sharon. Even better, channel yourself there — or yourself at home — being or rather ironically doing either avuncularity, as Charley and/or Mame (“Life’s a banquet, kids!”), or magic: Poppins and/or Pan.
Proust, though, when as young as my own David’s kids have been, for me, reminds us that it may be even better yet for us not to so “channel” — or role-play — anyone else at all. In answer, at age fifteen, to the question “If not yourself, who would you be?” on the now famous, if mislabeled, “Proust Questionnaire,” young Marcel wrote:
Since the question does not arise, I prefer not to answer it. All the same, I should very much have liked to be Pliny the Younger.
Just five years later, though, at twenty (also Steve’s age when he died), the man now wrote: “Myself — as those whom I admire would like me to be.” First Dad, for me, then Steve: so bright, they were; so beautiful, in fact; so admirable.
Kevin Kopelson is Professor of English at the University of Iowa and author of Neatness Counts: Essays on the Writer’s Desk; Sedaris; Love’s Litany: The Writing of Modern Homoerotics; Beethoven’s Kiss: Pianism, Perversion, and the Mastery of Desire; and The Queer Afterlife of Vaslav Nijinsky.